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Doctor X

by Glenn Erickson Apr 06, 2021

It’s the disc everyone wants right now — vintage Hollywood horror fully restored to its amazing original Technicolor luster. A scientific investigation into some grisly Full Moon Murders culminates in a bizarre experiment in the fantastic lab of five potential mad doctors. Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill became horror stars, Lee Tracy provides the sidebar laughs, and then the unknown killer divulges his horrifying, Cronenberg-like secret: Synthetic Flesh! The Warner Archive scores with a follow up to last year’s The Mystery of the Wax Museum.


Doctor X
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1932 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 76 min. / Street Date April 13, 2021 / 21.99
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Leila Bennett, Rovbert Warwixk, Thomas E. Jackson, Mae Busch, Tom Dugan, Louise Beavers.
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan, Richard Towers
Film Editor: George Amy
Art Director: Anton Grot
Special Effects: Fred Jackman Jr.
Makeup (effects): Max Factor
Written by Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin from a play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller
Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by
Michael Curtiz

The horror craze hit Hollywood in the pre-Code years, when studios were skirting the censorship rules on the pretext of financial necessity — the economy was so dire that they’d do anything to get patrons in the theaters.

Some films over-reacted to Universal’s smash horror hits, which broke down existing barriers of Good Taste in moviedom. Although little or no graphic horrific content appeared on screen, the bare mention of corpses, blood, vampires biting necks and blasphemous experiments with human life was edgy, dangerous material. Children definitely had nightmares about Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

 

1932 and ’33 were the top years for horror weirdness, with plenty of films bearing themes that outraged the censors. Paramount adapted a controversial H.G. Wells story about vivisection and bestiality, and RKO ran wild with savage sadism. MGM took the prize for miscalculation, going overboard with a show about Yellow Peril sex fiends and a shocker about deformities that was condemned as an abomination and almost immediately withdrawn. Warner Bros. didn’t jump on the horror bandwagon with much enthusiasm; Jack Warner simply didn’t like the genre. As we learn from the extras on this new disc, the studio may have produced its two early horror pix only because they wanted to finish off a contract with Technicolor. The two-color process hadn’t brought audiences running, and its strange palette seemed like a natural for ‘weird’ subject matter.

Twelve months ago the WAC brought us a brilliant restoration of WB’s second, more famous horror show The Mystery of the Wax Museum, easily the re-premiere highlight of 2020. The pandemic didn’t slow up the refurbishing of Doctor X, a classy mix of weird haunted house thrills, spook-show comedy and more than a few genuine chills. All of the famous horror pre-Codes talked the talk where forbidden subjects were concerned, but Michael Curtiz’s picture puts its gruesome, thoroughly icky monster in close-up, front and center. Thirty-five years before Hammer Films got its hand slapped for bad taste, this show gives us a color close-up of a Frankenstein-like beating heart in a glass beaker. In fact, Warners’ beating heart looks much better than Hammer’s.

 

What ‘forbidden content’ is billboarded?  The main buzzword is Cannibalism, a taboo that was fun in Charles Addams cartoons but didn’t get a lot of play in films. David Cronenberg must feel a kinship to Doctor X for its emphasis on physical, visceral transformation: the movie’s monster comes with a highly quotable concept that sounds like something that the future master of body horror would dream up: SYNTHETIC FLESH.

Scott MacQueen’s highly-informed commentary on this disc lets us know that the chillers Jack Warner did approve in the early thirties usually did without supernatural underpinnings and emphasized the studio’s stock in trade: the street-smart dialogue of cops, newsmen, and other urban smart-alecks. The advertising campaigns pretended that the highly entertaining Doctor X was a romantic comedy, with a few thrills thrown into the mix. The movie’s slapstick scenes alternate with genuinely frightening material. The monstrous villain is a cannibalistic serial killer who uses a new scientific breakthrough to disguise his appearance.

 

The story proper is derived from a 1920’s- style haunted house murder mystery play. A diabolical Full Moon Killer is slaying — and partially eating — a growing number of victims. The only clues lead the police to the prestigious Academy of Surgical Research. Its director is the wealthy Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill). He talks the cops into allowing him to conduct his own high-tech investigation using an elaborate high voltage mechanism that serves as a lie detector. Relocating to his Long Island mansion to avoid the press, Xavier submits his staff to the various tests. His lovely daughter Joanne (Fay Wray) distracts Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy), a nervy reporter. The machine gets closer to the truth just as the murderer strikes again — right in the middle of one of Xavier’s tests!

Doctor X was well-covered in Forrest Ackerman’s monster magazines of the 1960s. Along with its then- equally hard-to-see sister film The Mystery of the Wax Museum, we were treated to blurry frame blow-ups of ‘scenes we never thought we’d get to see.’ The Full Moon Killer in mid-transformation is a pasty horror with a strange cone-head. I don’t think either of these features were shown on television, and only real researchers would have known that they had been filmed in color. A surprise success, Doctor X launched Lionel Atwill as a horror icon, and made a horror scream queen of Fay Wray. She made five classic horror pictures in a row, ending with perhaps the greatest pre-Code shocker of them all, King Kong.

 

Doctor X is more of a “Boo!” fun-house movie than a hardcore horror item, yet its big scares are more grisly (grislier?) than those in the Universal classics of 1932. The ‘synthetic flesh’ idea is fully, um, fleshed out, and although the cannibalism theme never gets past the talking stage, it remains front and center. More than one scientist suspect has a (ha ha) strangely coincidental past association with cannibalism. In one very creepy morgue scene we can’t tell what Lionel Atwill’s Dr. Xavier is doing to a corpse behind a sheet. Nothing as suggestive would show up until 1962’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.

The play makes sure that there are plenty of creepy suspects afoot, each more ‘suspicious’ than the last. Atwill and his staff are all given sharply drawn character traits. The scarred, one-eyed Dr. Rowitz glares at us in close-up (  ); he’s played by Arthur Edmund Carewe, the ‘drug fiend’ of Mystery of the Wax Museum. Dr. Haines (John Wray) is singled out as a sex-obsessed voyeur. The professors are indeed skittish about the subject of cannibalism, and one confined to a wheelchair suspiciously regains his ability to walk. The handsome Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) is missing an arm, making him incapable of being the strangler.

The mischievous butler Otto (George Rosener, a contributor to the script) almost acts like a spooky TV horror host — he repeatedly, cruelly scares the nervous maid Mamie (Leila Bennett). Ms. Bennett is a minor favorite — she plays notably eccentric characters in a number of well-regarded movies. I like her in The Purchase Price, and as a townswoman in Fritz Lang’s Fury.

 

The visual centerpiece of Doctor X is designer Anton Grot’s wildly imaginative ‘mad lab’ and its functionally dubious but highly decorative scientific equipment. A table sprouts dozens of glass tubes stretching diagonally upward. Weird blown-glass ‘thingies’ are suspended over the chairs to be occupied by the scientists under examination. To stimulate his suspects Dr. Xavier restages the crimes in question on a theater-like platform. Otto must be one heck of resourceful butler, because with less than a day’s notice somebody comes up with a set of wax figures to represent the Full Moon Killer’s previous victims. Speaking of wax, the apparatus to measure ‘guilt’ appears to incorporate part of the wax showerhead device from the follow-up movie. Doctor Xavier’s futuristic art deco mad lab is a complete fantasy. In another movie its function might be to raise the dead, turn a robot into a woman or change lead into gold.

The suspects are strapped and handcuffed to their chairs, which may or may not have inspired the brilliant ‘blood test’ scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing fifty years later. The actual killer then interrupts the final test, turning the suspects into helpless witnesses as the ‘actress’ on stage is attacked for real. The ‘play within a play’ construction makes a nice comment on the audience for horror movies. We are helpless to save Fay Wray, just like the handcuffed professors … but for what have we bought our tickets, if not to see a beautiful woman terrorized?

The show’s few detractors usually bemoan its comic relief, claiming that the fast-talking Lee Tracy negates any serious horror tone. Tracy’s handshake buzzer becomes a running gag, and he has funny encounter with a closet full of (literal) skeletons. Lee Taylor’s lame excuses when caught in Joanne’s parlor are the same burlesque nonsense that Jason Robards Jr. spouts in The Night They Raided Minsky’s. The actor was a big Broadway star, and his claim to fame was playing unscrupulous, slick reporters; his movie Blessed Event has some of the fastest delivery of dialogue in film history. But we can see where his style would rub some viewers the wrong way — when Fay Wray begins flirting, we don’t for a minute understand what she sees in him.

 

Haters of comic relief in classic horror are even harder on Karl Freund’s terrific Mad Love, which has a lot of material with a similar wisecracking comic played by Ted Healy, sans The Three Stooges. I think Healy’s fine as well. Who thinks comedy and horror should be kept totally apart, anyway?   Both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum play self-aware games with the horror format.

Lovely Fay Wray is no joke. She looks terrific in Technicolor and we don’t care if she’s only an onlooker waiting to be menaced in the last reel. She’s not at all bad when sweet-talking Lee Tracy’s reporter into delaying his scandalous news coverage… although going with Tracy on a sand-and swimsuit trip down to the beach does seem a bit odd, what with all the murders afoot. Ms. Wray always kept her dignity, whether menaced by vampire bats or being molested by a giant gorilla.

Although not quite as spectacular as its follow-up Wax Museum, Doctor X delivers chills and excitement to match any of the horror items of 1932. When the Full Moon Killer reveals himself and begins his disgusting facial transformation over a boiling caldron, 1930s audiences must have blown a fuse. He’s indeed a highly original and scary movie monster.

 


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Doctor X is equally as impressive as its fine release of Mystery of the Wax Museum. The exacting restoration was again accomplished by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and The Film Foundation. A new commentary is contributed by Michael Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode, and a second  track by UCLA’s Scott MacQueen is from an older Warner DVD.

The color in this movie is simply fascinating. GREEN predominates even more than in Wax Museum; I would think that designer Anton Grot and his associates used the gap between the two pictures to experiment with their color scheme strategy. The images here have a dreamlike quality, especially in those strange sets, and the weird ‘mad lab’ apparatus that look like modern art constructions. Some of those streaks of green are so bright, they look electric.

Unlike most fantastic films, I can’t remember when I first saw Dr. X, but I know it was in B&W. The first thing we learn is that the B&W version is actually a separate movie — Warners produced a side-by side monochrome version, with the B&W camera given the 2nd-best camera position. It’s too bad that nobody sprang for a comparison featurette. There are little differences of performance throughout, either because different takes were used or shots were filmed independently. Is Lee Tracy’s comedy improvisations inside the skeleton closet completely different, because there wasn’t enough room in the set for two cameras?  The B&W version is completely restored as well.

 

I pulled out my 2006 DVD of Doctor X and confirmed that Scott MacQueen’s commentary is indeed the same. That gave me an opportunity to also check out the un-restored color on the DVD. The improvement is startling — the DVD resembles a faded magazine illustration, and the Blu-ray looks like a work of art. MacQueen’s depth of information on the show is staggering. He knows the full development of the storyline. In an early scene in what is obviously a brothel, the then- toothless Code censors objected to a dialogue line from the madam (Mae Busch): ‘The girls aren’t here yet.’  Jack Warner solved the problem by eliminating the words and putting three scantily-clad women in their place.

Alan Rode thoughtfully avoids repeating the same commentary information from MacQueen’s track. He sketches rounded portraits of the cast members, explaining exactly how Lionel Atwill came to get the part that would define his film career. Alan also explains the difference between Warner Bros., First National Pictures, and the Vitaphone company. He credits director Michael Curtiz with helping to form the Screen Actors’ Guild: the director’s oppressive 16- to 20- hour work days inspired the industry Union movement.

Also present is a featurette covering The Horror Films of Michael Curtiz. It’s not a long list, but they’re good pictures. Just in case somebody out there doesn’t know, Warners’ 1939 feature The Return of Doctor X has nothing to do with this picture. It’s the one in which Humphrey Bogart plays a mild-mannered zombie with a white streak in his hair.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Doctor X
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: The alternate B&W version of Doctor X; restoration comparison reel; Audio commentaries by Alan K. Rode and Scott MacQueen; featurette The Horror films of Michael Curtiz, original Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
April 4, 2021
(6476drx)
CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson

Here’s Michael Schlesinger on Doctor X:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.